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Friday, 23 March 2012

Salon phobia

I wonder if you can help me with my Miniature Schnauzer Bobby, who is three years old.

As you know, he needs regularly grooming every two to three months. On the last couple of ocassions the groomers have been been unable to clean his ears and say he snaps when they try to approach them. The same with his claws - although they don't need cutting because he is quite active and fit. The vet recommended that I give Bobby some sedatives before his next cut, Zylkene, which I bought from the internet. I gave him this, but it didn't calm him down and again he reacted badly when the groomer tried to clean his ears.

I have just taken him to a different groomer - who was recommended and is male and very experienced - and fully explained all the circumstances of what had gone wrong before. Bobby became anxious almost as soon as he was in the groomers and snapped at the man when he tried to pick him up. Then after I left Bobby, he bit the groomer as he tried to pick him up to begin grooming him. All attempts to groom him were then abandoned.

The groomer said Bob is obviously terrified and must have had a bad experience previously and is reacting badly. The groomer suggested that the eventual solution would be to have Bobby put down because there was no guarantee he wouldn't turn on someone else when he was frightened. This horrifies me.

He also suggested that he may need to be sent away to a therapist, or alternatively anaethetised before he was groomed - if I can find a vet willing to do it.

Bobby is normally a very sociable and happy dog and is good with both adults and children - very friendly. I have never seen him show this level of aggression outside of being at the groomers. He lets me bathe him and trim bits of his coat - although he clearly doesn't like it, he has not been aggressive with me.

At this stage, I don't know what to do for the best. Can you advise?

I don't know whether its normal for a dog to snap or bite when it is frightened and if this can be trained out of him. Or how to stop Bobby feeling so frightened when he is being groomed and reacting badly?


Matthew Finnegan, by email

Karen Wild, behaviourist (, advises...

Dear Matthew
This can be a common problem so please do not feel that Bobby is the only one. Firstly, a dog that is fearful is highly likely to snap and bite no matter what they are like the rest of the time. Bobby has a specific fear of being groomed and this may not mean he is likely to bite at other times. When I deal with aggressive dogs in my behaviour practice work, the owners are always worried that their dog will somehow be labelled 'bad' or 'difficult' when actually, their behaviour is perfectly normal given the situation they are in. The rest of the time they are in their comfort zone so are happy and relaxed, loving pets! Grooming may not be something they welcome, and taking them to a stranger who has to give them close examination and use noisy metallic things around them can make them very unsure.
So let's be proactive. Firstly you need to find a groomer who is happy to take their time. We are lucky to have a fantastic one near here that I can send my clients to after working with their dogs on behaviour modification. Secondly, you can do a lot of the work at home - not only learning how to groom Bobby, but also teaching him that grooming can be enjoyable. Make a list of all the things he might not like; having his ears touched, hearing the clippers, being gently restrained, having his feet picked up... it may be a long list! Then, put the list in order with the things he likes the least down at the bottom of the list. Start with the easiest one at the top of the list - this may be having clippers held close to him. Make sure he is quite hungry and keep your clippers nearby. When Bobby is eating his dinner, or when you are petting him, hold the clippers in one hand and offer him a really smelly, tasty treat such as ham or chicken with the other hand. He has to learn to associate a nice, relaxing time with these things being around, long before you switch them on or even try to groom him with them. Gradually work your way towards having the clippers closer, and eventually switched on, but this must be done with care and forethought and may take several weeks. An APBC behaviourist will be able to help you with this in a lot of detail ( and may assist you to clicker train him to accept being handled although use of a clicker is not essential.
Once you have worked your way through this list - calmly, and enjoyably associating the whole process with fun and delicious food for Bobby, you must tackle the next stage which is getting someone else to do the same thing. Not complicated, as you can follow the same procedure, but you do need a sensible groomer that will support your efforts and will not mind taking their time and may even do a home visit and teach you how to groom him yourself. They may want additional money but you are paying for their time and expertise and I am sure Bobby is worth it!
For goodness sake do not even consider having Bobby put to sleep without proper expert advice from an APBC registered, qualified behaviourist. In my profession we work with dogs that are fearful in similar ways that have bitten repeatedly, and they often show excellent progress. We do have to consider everyone's welfare but this is a situation where Bobby is being put under specific pressure. If we can remove that pressure by changing how he feels about things, he will not need to 'defend' himself. If there is a risk of him biting, you can teach him to enjoy wearing a muzzle whilst you are working on desensitising him.
If all else fails and you have tried your very best, with expert help, sedation is sometimes offered by Vets to prevent the dog becoming overly stressed. Whilst this is very much your Vet's decision I would strongly recommend you follow the above advice with expert help first.

Vicki Milner, Canine Welfare Trainer at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, advises…

Dear Matthew

This is not an uncommon problem; unfortunately some dogs build up negative behaviours from going to the groomers. Bobby is expressing his feelings of concern and the only way he can do this is through body language and snapping which can on occasions lead to biting.

Fortunately you can help him, the first thing we need to do is make the experience pleasant for him, and this may take some time. I would suggest that discuss with your current groomer their feelings about trying again, but it may be best to look for an alternative one. Ideally research various groomers taking the time to explain Bobby’s behaviour, looking into the different options of taking him to a salon or a mobile groomer, ask them how they feel about his previous behaviours and ensure they are prepared to be flexible with regards to how long it may take to get him groomed again in the future. It is important that the experiences he receives from now on are a positive as possible.

I would suggest that whilst doing the following training that it may be best to get him used to wearing a muzzle this will ensure that he is comfortable and relaxed when wearing one and you and the groomer may feel more at ease if he did try to bite. Take your time and do this slowly so that he is relaxed when wearing this.

To be able to work on his handling issue you will need to take some steps prior to introducing him to a new groomer you will need to build up positive good associations to being handled first. This can be done at home utilising food, toys or affection. It is best to use the reward that he enjoys the most, but finding a really tasty treat that he loves will be most beneficial.

When he is at his most relaxed such as after a walk or a play session start to do some gentle handling with him, ensure that he remains relaxed when doing this and offer him food as a reward, keep these sessions short to begin with and concentrating on areas that he is most comfortable with at first building up to the more sensitive areas as he becomes more confident. You will need to stop the sessions as soon as he becomes anxious or stressed going back to an area that he was relaxed with and building it up again from there.  This may take a few sessions keep them short and it is best to go slow to prevent him building up yet more negative associations with been handled. 

Once he is happy to be lightly handled all over you can now bring in grooming equipment and start the process again. Once you are happy and confident with his behaviours at home discuss with your groomer about the next steps this could be them coming to you or if they have a salon you taking him over.  The smell of groomers may bring back all those negative experiences so at first we just want to make the visits as positive as possible. Take him to the groomers and allow him to meet the staff especially the person who will eventually groom him and spend some time helping him to relax utilising food, toys and affection when he is calm. If at any point he starts to become anxious or stressed remove him from the situation and start again, this may take some time. This process will may need to be repeated a few times. On the first time he is left with the groomer it may be best that he does not have any grooming done, this is so that he does not build up a negative association with being left at the groomers meaning that he is then going to be handled and pulled about.

Again continue to have discussions with your groomer on how you would like to proceed perhaps at first it may be best that they only groom on the areas he is most comfortable with at first building up to the difficult areas as he relaxes more, it is important that you continue with the positive associations as home so that he continues to remain relaxed when been handled and groomed. As he becomes more at ease with the situation having other members of the family help with this will aid in reducing his anxious and worried behaviours.

Hopefully this should all help to reduce his anxieties and ensure that he starts to enjoy the grooming process.


  1. Dear Matthew

    What a dreadful experience for you and Bob and I would suggest you seek qualified help from a companion animal behaviourist who will be able to help change Bobs mind about how he is feeling when being groomed. They will suggest and show you how to de-sensitise and counter condition him to being groomed happily and this will take time and patience to achieve.

    It is doubtful that a quick fix solution will help in the short term and the tablets you mentioned are not sedatives but a protein found in milk, which may help calm animals down in less stressful situations. It can take only one bad experience to cause a lot of harm and yes Bob may be feeling very frightened indeed so resorts to the only way he knows works for him. The use of sedatives may mean you can receive a clean Bob on that occasion but may do more harm than good if he remains frightened but can’t escape or bite as his body won’t allow him to and he feels out of control.

    Meanwhile buy a nice soft brush and in the house and garden call Bob to you in a fun way and ask him to sit and to show him a nice treat or toy (whatever he likes most in the world) and quietly place a brush onto the floor and then reward him for remaining calm. Repeat this several times over days until he can cope happily. The next time, allow him to sniff the brush and reward him. Then the next time place the brush onto his back and straight back off again and reward. Then very slowly over days and weeks you can progress to very small brushes of his coat until he allows you to brush him happily. Work slowly and in Bobs own time. If at any point he worries go back to a stage he is happy at. Work with your behaviourist (if you are insured this may be covered) and hopefully you can change his mind about how he is feeling. And yes he might look a bit scruffy for a while but at least he will be happy and alive.

    Hope all goes well
    Rosie Barclay MPhil CCAB

  2. It sounds like some desensitising needs to be carried out. Have you considered a mobile groomer who could come to your home to carry it out? Your home is more of a relaxed environment and will not have any nasty associations for Bobby.
    If you can clip his nails and lift his ears and tail etc then it suggests that his fear is with others. How is he at the vets?
    Bobby is displaying behaviour which is driven by fear and is the equivalent of a cornered animal, if it can't flee, it bites. It is not Bobby's fault as you know.
    Can you find an understanding groomer who will visit your home and just hand feed Bobby as he or she touches Bobby's paws, ears and coat for one session. On the next session he or she could maybe clip the nails on one paw whilst feeding him. It has to be a slow process carried out at a pace dictated by Bobby. Bobby must not be anxious.
    Sedating a dog in a scary situation may not be ideal. It could be the equivalent of being paralysed in the face of something scary, as Rosie Barclay pointed out.
    Unfortunately the best long term answer maybe the slow process of getting him to associate the whole situation with something really good. There is a fantastic video on YouTube about grooming desensitisation by Dr Sophia Yin. Goto YouTube and search for 'Dog Aggressive for toenail trim'.
    Best of luck!

  3. Hi Matthew
    I'm appalled at that groomer suggesting he might have to be put down! All Bolbby is doing is being defensive because he's not used to having these things done by a stranger.
    There's a wonderful website:
    and somewhere on the left side of the screen you can click on a link called something like "how to clean your dog's ears" and you can watch a video showing how to do it in a non-confrontational way. There's really useful info on this site and the two young men who are the trainers showing you how are inspirational.
    You need to practise on various parts of your dog's body, ie feet, tail, etc, using treats so he doesn't feel threatened.
    If you can't find a sympathetic groomer, do it yourself.
    Poor Bobby, but honestly you can get over this and no, you haven't got a vicious dog!
    Julia Lewis

  4. Having worked as a dog groomer years ago, I wondered if Bob may have had to have hair plucked from his ears, this may have caused him to react in this way. If not done properly it can be quite painful for sensitive dog's and leave the ear feeling quite sore.

    Definately try to desensitise Bob to having his ears cleaned, which you could try yourself with help from a trainer who uses reward based training. I think Clicker training may work well, but it is not something that is going to be cured overnight, so you will need to be patient.

    As for the groomers awful remarks, this has been made by somebody that is not only thoughtless but doesn't understand how a dogs mind works either. I would certainly not attempt to use this person again.

    Regards Jan

  5. Sadly the groomers remarks are ones often heard! No dog thinks it is great to have ears plucked and nails cut but with time and patience this will be achievable. For nails we use a Pet Dremel.These are very easy to use at home and pet owners often feel much safer with these than nail clippers. Even if you only do one nail a week it is worth it! Ears - get yourself a bottle of Thornit [a Google search will find you the details] use it very sparingly and try once a week to pluck just a little from each ear.On your next routine vet visit ask him to have a look inside the ears and let you know if the hair growth is okay. In severe circumstances the vet can sedate your dog and completely clear the ears.In most cases a quick pluck at home will keep this in check. As for groomers.....find a kind, caring groomer who has time and patience. Big salons often have a large and quick turnaround where a sensitive dog can really suffer. Choose a smaller, calmer setting and tell the groomer exactly what has happened. It might take a small search but the caring groomers are out there!

  6. Matthew, Being a dog groomer with several years experence, I class myself as a 'caring/patience' groomer.... the dog is my priority, I try and aim for what I call a 'happy dog' at the end of its grooming. And yes I would agree that it sounds as if Bobby has had a bad experience at the groomers, most likely in having its ears plucked incorrectly/painfully and not much TLC - so hence the dog has turned nasty. At this stage I would suggest not even doing anything with the ears, it all depends on how hairy they are and if they really need plucking, I found if the hair is not really ready, there are other easier ways to deal with this and a lot less painful such as cutting the excess. I would not even do the ears at this stage, you need to concentrate on gaining your dog's trust again with the main grooming/clipping side of things first. With a dog like this the groomer needs to have a lot of time/patience, normally not the busy crowded doggy salons!!! I have so many dogs who have been mis-handled and I always say you may not get exactly what you would like style-wise 1st time around, but you have to retrain the dog when it comes to the grooming side of things and mostly importantly gain the dogs trust, this may not happen with the first grooming session or after a few more.... it will take time and with a lot of TLC and patience and a good groomer who treats the dog the way it deserves and that it is not just a commodity. You will get there. I have found more people than not who have had a go themselves have made it so the dog does not enjoy the grooming through incorrect handling/cutting the dog, giving incorrect commands and so on. I do not really know where you live, but if you lived anywhere near me I would have gladly offered to have taken on trying to groom Bobby and hopefully in time ended with a calm and happy dog. I would also advise not to go down the road of sedating your dog or give it calmers, these can cause a dog to react against the calming effect and they panic more.... and seeing that your dog will need to be groomed quite regularly, as he gets older you would like Bobby to at least be OK with being groomed and not have to resort to drugging him... I hope you found a good groomer, but unfortunately the one you need for him are few and far between. Good Luck